The 2016 Olympics in Brazil are over.
One diving pool turned green, but no dead bodies were washed ashore during sand volleyball matches so it could have been worse. The United States won more medals and gold medals than any other country by far.
This should be a time of rest and reflection for the world’s top athletes who trained for years to reach this point. But for one runner, there won’t be any rest. In fact, he could face a prison stay or possibly worse if he returns home.
His home is also the country that was most recently added to the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning list.
This is heartbreaking because it is also the home country of my son.
Ethiopia is going through a great deal of ethnic strife right now.
The group most affected by the situation is the Oromo people who come from Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. My son is of Tigrayan descent. Tigrayans make up about six percent of the country’s population but have dominated the government for years. We plan to take Dawit back to visit one day but it won’t be anytime soon because of concerns about protests and government responses that are creating violence and a mounting death toll among Oromo protesters — with as many as 400 unarmed protesters being shot during government crackdowns.
The Oromo people are questioning the country’s leaders about what they call an unfair distribution of wealth. To quell the protests, the government suppressed local and outside media and has limited phone and internet access in affected regions of the country which has only served to stir up more paranoia and discontent in those areas.
The state-owned television station even refused to run highlights of the men’s marathon from the Olympics because Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line with his hands over his head in the shape of an “X” — the symbol used by the Oromo protesters. Lilesa finished second in the event.
His protest is similar to that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 when the two Americans raised clenched fists covered by black gloves to symbolize the Black Power movement that didn’t believe America’s Civil Rights movement had gone far enough.
Just like Lilesa this week, the two were seen by some as folk heroes and by others as militant or petulant medal winners.
The Ethiopian may be the most courageous competitor at the games. He knew what he was risking when he crossed that finish line and held the “X” above his head on the medal stand.
“If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country,” he said. “The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe. My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”
Despite his fears, Ethiopia — an American ally visited by President Barack Obama in 2015 and one of the few stable countries that is vital to our anti-terror interests against groups in Somalia, Rwanda and other central African countries — assured its silver medalist that he would face no harm if he returns.
Communications Minister Getachew Reda said Lilesa is an “Ethiopian hero” who “shouldn’t at all be worried” to return to his home country. “I can assure you nothing is going to happen to his family nothing is going to happen to him.”
Whether it is 1980’s American boycott because of Russian aggression in Afghanistan or South Africa being banned due to Apartheid or even Arab athletes refusing to shake hands with Israeli opponents, athletic events at the Olympics often carry political overtones.
Hopefully, Lilesa can become a symbol Ethiopia can use to bring together factional fighters and not another tragic tale of a failing human rights record.
— Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at email@example.com.